The eye-watering cost of SA’s universities

2015-01-18 15:00

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It’ll cost you easily R100?000 – if not more – for your child to study for just one year at one of South Africa’s top institutions.

But, says an economic policy researcher, spending money at universities like Cape Town, Wits and Pretoria gives your child easy access to the labour market, networking opportunities and well-paid jobs.

City Press this week calculated the cost of enrolling a student at a number of South African universities for the two most popular degrees – a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Commerce.

Tuition fees are just one part of the equation. Once you’ve forked out between R34?000 and R43?000 at Wits for BA tuition (figures vary at some universities depending on which subjects are taken within a degree), there’s still accommodation, food, transport and extras like books, photocopying and extramurals to consider.

At the ANC’s January 8 birthday celebrations in Cape Town last weekend, President Jacob Zuma bemoaned the high cost of education.

“We are?…?showing steady improvements in tertiary education and student financial aid is increasing all the time. Our figures show that more than 1.4?million students have benefited from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme,” Zuma said.

“However, we are concerned about the escalating costs of tertiary education and the annual raising of fees by universities and other institutions of higher learning. This escalating cost has become another source of exclusion for the poor and vulnerable South African child. While we appreciate the autonomy of universities, we must caution universities against excluding students on the basis of price and race.”

But two days later, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said that although the ANC was raising “legitimate concerns”, the government actually needed to “increase the amount of money we use to support our higher education institutions”.

Hendrik van Broekhuizen, an economic policy researcher in Stellenbosch University’s economics department, said there was a fairly simple justification for spending hundreds of thousands of rands to get a university degree.

“In general, and with all else being equal, paying more means a better quality education. A better quality education means a better opportunity to learn and gain skills,” Van Broekhuizen said.

“Better learning and skills acquisition means a better opportunity to gain quality employment upon graduating. Better quality employment means better remuneration and nonpecuniary benefits and, ultimately, a better quality of life.”

He cautioned that attending an expensive university wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a graduate a high-paying job.

“All it means is that you have the opportunity to gain the kinds of skills and build the kinds of networks that may ultimately get you a good job.”

As to the currency of qualifications from well-regarded institutions, Van Broekhuizen said research “overwhelmingly shows that university graduates have by far the lowest unemployment rates, the highest likelihoods of acquiring quality employment, and the highest paying jobs of any education cohort”.

Broekhuizen said the more prestigious the university or the more in demand the course, the more a student could expect to pay in tuition fees.

Local universities, he said, were diverse in terms of their focus areas and instructional and infrastructural quality.

“The best universities tend to attract the best academic staff by offering them the best working environments and salaries.

“These institutions also spend a lot on ensuring that students have access to up-to-date modern facilities and infrastructure such as labs, libraries, lecture venues and information technology.”

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